What if I told you there was a condition called exploding head syndrome?
Take the case of Jamie (not his real name), a 16-year old boy I met several years ago.
Jamie woke his mother up at midnight, telling her he heard an explosion in his room. His mother had heard nothing. Jamie was clearly spooked by what had happened. He swore he heard what he heard. He was afraid he was going crazy. He had been up late several nights working on a project for a class, but he promised his mother he hadn’t been doing drugs or drinking alcohol. She believed him. So did I. Jamie had his first ever episode of exploding head syndrome.
What the Heck is Exploding Head Syndrome?
Exploding head syndrome is a parasomnia. A parasomnia simply means unwanted events that come along with sleep, like sleepwalking. People report a hearing an incredibly loud noise just before falling asleep, or just before waking. It can seem like a shotgun firing in one’s head. Unfortunately, these events happen to children as well.
Other people describe have described the sensation as:
- A painless loud bang
- A clash of cymbals
- A bomb exploding
Or, it could be a less alarming sound. Even so, episodes can scare the &%$@ out of people. Some observers think that exploding head syndrome might explain alien abduction claims! Others think that they are having a stroke. The number of attacks varies. They can happen very rarely. They can also occur many times in one night. Having many episodes can greatly disturb your sleep. Some people report having a cluster of attacks over several nights. Then a few weeks or months will pass before it occurs again.
A flash of light may come along with the sound. A muscle twitch or jerk may also occur. The event is normally painless. A sudden stab of pain in the head has at times been reported. Some people are unfortunate enough to experience the event along with an attack of sleep paralysis.
What, You’ve Never Heard of Exploding Head Syndrome?
Join the club. You don’t read a lot about it. But it is a real thing. It’s more common in adults, but it does occur in children, down to age 10.
It turns out to be more common than you might imagine. A study of college students in 2015 found that 18% of the group reported having been awakened by an imagined loud noise at least once in their lives. A substantial number of these young people reported several such episodes.
Need a SLEEP COACH?
It happens more often in people who are anxious, or fatigued, or stressed. The boy Jamie I opened this piece with fit into all three categories. He had been up late several nights in a row working on a project for school. He was unusually stressed out about it.
The diagnosis is difficult to make. There is no test for exploding head syndrome. We have only the patient’s word for it. If there will be any testing, it will by a sleep study. Physicians want to make sure that there is not another type of sleep disorder going on, or another medical condition. They will want to if you are taking any medications, which can give these symptoms as a side-effect. They will want to know if you are taking any drugs as well.
Finally, the doctors may want to perform an EEG. The purpose would be to make sure that the event was not a type of seizure.
Uh-oh. You Mean There’s No Treatment?
That’s correct. There is no treatment for exploding head syndrome. Part of the problem is our ignorance of the cause. Most of the time in medicine, if doctors can’t figure out what the cause is, they can’t very well find a cure.
If We Can’t Treat It, Can We at Least Manage It?
Sure. There are a number of things you can do. These may sound familiar, but that should not come as a surprise. To fix almost any sleep problem you have to go back to basics.
- Try to stick to a regular routine. Consistency, regularity, and predictability are the friends of good sleep. And their absence is the enemy. To the greatest extent possible, get the child to sleep at the same time every night (not too late!)
- Feed your child healthy food. Avoid processed food and other junk.
- Make sure the child does vigorous exercise regularly. It helps; trust me!
- Reduce stress. This is perhaps the toughest of all. Some sources of stress are harder to remove than others. If the child is doing too many activities, you may consider cutting back. If this isn’t possible, try stress-reduction classes like yoga or controlled breathing.